If paying for a standard gym membership just doesn't fit your budget, there are plenty of low-cost, or even free, options that offer effective ways to work out. From public or non-profit fitness centres to bodyweight exercises in the playground, you can get a great workout without the membership fees. Illustration by Sam Woolley.
The number crunchers at Canstar Blue put the average cost of a gym membership at $72/month. Gyms can be a financial burden, and that number could change depending on where you live and how many people sign up for that gym too. But investing time and effort in your fitness doesn't have to be such a money-sink. If you don't want to pay for a gym, the next best thing is to look at other affordable options in your area.
Many Big Cities Have Public or Non-Profit Fitness Centres
When I first arrived in Tokyo, I was willing to pay, even more than usual, to get access to a gym. Sadly, my heart (and wallet) wasn't prepared for the prices of these local commercial gyms, so I walked away bitter and gym-less. Then my friend told me about a public, city-run gym — complete with a weight room — that was way more budget-friendly.
Turns out these public gyms are all over other parts of Tokyo. These city-funded fitness spaces are a smaller burden on your monthly finances, but more importantly, they rarely, if ever, bind you to troublesome contracts.
It's not easy being in-the-know though, so start by checking for information on public gyms, fitness centres or community centres near you. Additionally, you can scout your local community colleges for free or low-cost fitness classes, too.
One Lifehacker reader noted that she paid $US135 ($183) for gym membership the entire year — for her whole family! That's amazing. Even if you're already getting a bargain, it's still worth asking about discounts, as some places give discounts to families, veterans and seniors.
For what you're paying for (or not, in some cases), you're probably imagining a dungeon-like room with a few rusty weights and a dude named Bubba doing curls in the corner. Not so, in my experience. The places I went to kept impressive, well-maintained equipment and a clean facility. In fact, you may find amenities and classes that rival those of the classiest commercial gyms — without the price or pesky salespeople. You just never know unless you look into it!
Beyond these, you can also look into community-serving, non-profit gyms, like the well-known Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). They have branches all over the world, and they often have great fitness facilities. However, they can sometimes be an even more expensive option, depending on where you live. It's still worth asking your local Y to see what they charge and offer though. Every YMCA branch is owned and operated independently and varies in the services and amenities they provide. And every Y offers financial assistance, which is based on individual income, family size and circumstances.
You Can Get a Killer Workout At Park 'Gyms'
Wander into a city park and you'll usually find at least a pull-up bar. Sometimes you'll find other rigs that let you do ab exercises, dips, plyometrics, lunges, inverted rows and a bunch of other exercises, if you get creative enough. The fitness equipment in parks may look unwieldy and complicated at first, but give them a chance and you can get a rad circuit training-type workout.
Usually, the equipment will be either scattered throughout the park (in kind of its own circuit) or clustered together in one "workout" area. In either case, the idea of circuit training is to begin at an exercise station of your choice; perform a set of the exercise (usually they have some signage for what to do); then run, skip, jog or walk briskly to the next station to immediately perform another set of a different exercise. Keep moving from one station to the next in this pattern until you've completed all of the exercises, and repeat for as many full rounds as you can.
Some parks number the stations, but you can make up the sequence on your own. The main thing here is to blast through the whole circuit with little rest. Give it a try for a challenging (and free!) workout, or maybe even to mix it up from your regular routine.
Playgrounds Are the Perfect Outdoor Workout Space
Playgrounds aren't just for kids. They're great for fitness-seeking adults as well, but don't underestimate what you're getting yourself into. Those monkey bars, for instance, will clobber your grip strength, arms, abs and back muscles, especially now that you have a lot more weight to hold up than when you were a kid. If you enjoy a challenge, up the ante and check out this video for some killer monkey bar exercises.
For those of you who like to work off a template, this article (or the video above) from Nerd Fitness shows how you can turn any park playground into your fun, personal gym. The whole workout is split into five segments: An explosive leg movement, a push movement, a pull movement, another leg movement and, finally, a core movement. The best part is that it fits any fitness goal.
And if you don't feel like monkeying around, sometimes a park bench is all you need to get a good workout.
Make Bodyweight Exercises More Challenging
We're huge fans of bodyweight exercises, so they're a no-brainer for a no frills, low-cost option (I mean c'mon, you can do some with only a door). Bodyweight workouts were my go-to when I didn't have access to a gym while travelling abroad, and they allowed me to improve my strength and maintain the fitness I built from weight training. But after a while, they could also start to feel less challenging and stale.
While small tweaks can make bodyweight exercises harder, like resting your feet on an elevated surface (a chair, couch or whatever) when you do a push-up, you can also use additional equipment like resistance bands and suspension trainers (the brand name is TRX). (For example, check this chart for the many TRX exercises you can do.) Both of these work with your bodyweight to add diversity and challenge to your workouts. In some cases, they make exercises like a suitcase deadlift, atomic push-ups and band pull-aparts possible.
The up-front costs of resistance bands and the suspension trainer seem like a hefty investment, but trust me, they will last you a long time. I've had my suspension trainer for over six years and still use it heavily.
Get Fit at Home
At-home workouts are nothing new, but if we're talking about affordability here, it's hard to go wrong with working out in the comfort of your own home (and possibly in your pyjamas, too).
You could buy workout DVDs, but you could also go with the 21st century option and stream workouts right to your TV (or phone or tablet or computer) via monthly subscription services like DailyBurn or FitnessGlo (think Netflix for fitness). DailyBurn, for example, features myriad workouts for all fitness levels and interests, including yoga, kettlebell training and Bollywood dancing.
As of this writing, DailyBurn offers a 30-day free trial and costs $US14.95 ($20) a month thereafter. And if you don't feel like paying for a streaming service, you can simply go to YouTube and follow along with one of thousands of YouTube fitness channels (we've listed our favourites here).
This all goes to show that with a little ingenuity, time and effort, you can forego the expensive, state-of-the-art facilities and still get a good workout. Sure, you might lose out on that swank-looking jacuzzi in the locker room, but your fitness, health and wallet stand to gain much more.